What an experience it was to be with over 2000 delegates and thousands of church members in Atlanta's Georgia Dome during the recent General Conference Session. I enjoyed the experience, and I marveled at our Church in all its multi-cultural and multi-lingual expressions.
But sitting through long sessions of interminable discussions on amendments to the Church Manual required some dedication. Most revisions appeared to be reasonable but so many of them generated amendments that after the second day of business I began to tune out. Some delegates became famous for asking questions or proposing amendments. As we worked laboriously through the 160-page document, I began to notice something I had not seen before: our church is really confused about ordination. Let me explain.
I came to this realization during the long and intriguing discussion we had on whether deaconesses could be ordained. Up to now the Church Manual simply stated that “the [local] church may arrange for a suitable service of induction for the deaconesses by an ordained minister” (Church Manual, rev. 2000, 16th ed., p. 56). The proposed amendment added wording to allow deaconesses to be ordained like their male counterpart: “Deaconesses may be ordained in divisions where the process has been approved by its executive committee.” In the end, the session voted to amend the Church Manual and allow deaconesses to be ordained.
Some of the speakers during this discussion helped me to realize this confusion about ordination and the unbiblical distinctions we make. Up to now, we have required the ordination of male deacons (p. 54) and made provision for the induction of deaconesses if deemed appropriate (p. 56). (However, some churches have made no distinction in gender in the office of deacon and have ordained both genders, which I believe is in agreement with the use of the word diakonos in the New Testament, see my earlier post on Phoebe as a deacon or minister.) We ordain elders, both male and female without distinction (pp. 48, 49), but we ordain only male ministers while we commission female ministers. (Strangely, the Church Manual says nothing about the need of ministers to be ordained. It simply states a minister is ordained. However, the Seventh-day Adventist Minister's Manual includes chapters on ministers’ credentials, the meaning of ordination, and the ceremony of ordination.) Adding to the confusion is one more statement after the sections on the functions of church clerk and treasurer: “All newly elected officers of the local church may be inducted in a service of induction conducted by a minister” (p. 62). This statement is now at the end of chapter 8 and includes all local church leaders.
All this confusion about what to do with our pastors and lay church leaders stems from a poor and practically non-existent theology of ordination. Honestly, I think our church does not understand what ordination is about. And a lot of this confusion, we must admit, stems from our ambiguity about the role of women in ministry.
A Study Of Ordination
I welcome the call made during the Session that we should study the meaning of ordination in the Scripture and formulate an Adventist theology of ordination. I suggest a few points that ought to be part of this study:
- The meaning of the laying on of hands in the Bible, and particularly in the New Testament;
- The difference between a sacrament and an ordinance, and whether ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist church is a sacrament or an ordinance;
- The historical origins of having deacons, elders and pastors as ordained leaders of the local church;
- Ellen White’s meaning of ordination and of her invitation to also set apart by the laying on of hands of medical missionaries and women engaged in ministry (Ev 546; RH, July 9, 1895);
- The differences between laying on of hands, induction, commission, and ordination.
I think a biblical and historical study of these points will help us better understand what ordination is. I personally don’t see much difference between induction, commission, and ordination when it comes to laying on of hands. The New Testament speaks of laying hands on servants of the gospel as a setting apart for various kinds of ministry (Deacons, Acts 6:6; Elders, 1 Tim 5:22; Missionaries, Acts 13:3). The context of the ceremony determined its function and purpose. But in all contexts, I think the ceremony says to servants of the church that we see the gifts of the Holy Spirit in their lives and we commission them with our authorization to serve the Lord and the church in a particular ministry.
But it may be that my view is too simplistic so I look forward to this study to bring clarity to our church practices and to my understanding of ordination.